Trace the arc of Billy Butler’s 2014 season, and it’s simple to gauge when his fading fortunes changed.
With that, coincidence or not, the Royals’ trajectory went from flat to skyrocketing.
Which takes us to the simmering hot-stove topic in the middle of a pennant race:
If it’s to be a September to remember for the Royals and Kansas City, the team has to sort out how to continue to harness Butler if and when Eric Hosmer is healthy enough to return.
Never miss a local story.
Given a choice of whether scheming out what to do is important now or just wasted energy, manager Ned Yost called it the latter.
He’s got a point.
With Hosmer on the verge of a rehab assignment as he seeks to return from a hand injury, any decisions remain weeks away.
That means this could settle itself some. There’s also no point in borrowing trouble.
Besides, it’s all about the here and now if the Royals are going to make the topic matter, anyway.
But it’s also an intriguing and significant dilemma to ponder, one that would never have figured to be in play only a few weeks ago.
For one thing, the Royals seemed in serious trouble when Hosmer aggravated the hand injury on July 31 … a few hours after they’d failed to land some big lumber at the trade deadline.
Meanwhile, Butler was sputtering and being cast more as a scapegoat than a savior.
He already really had been a cleanup hitter by default only, and the theory was fast-fading even within Yost’s reluctance to change.
Butler had been demoted in the order and been benched three times in eight days, and people were wondering about things like diminished bat speed.
Who had faith in the rest of his season … or even career?
Besides, that is, Butler — whether out of denial or optimism or intuition.
“I have a long track record,” said Butler, 28, who, in fact, is nearly a .300 career hitter. “At some point, it was going to turn around.”
Just days before Hosmer was ruled out, Butler had shown signs of stirring from hurtling towards his career-worst season as the Royals, not coincidentally, were meandering along at 51-50.
Entering the July 25 game against Cleveland, he had three home runs and 36 RBIs and was hitting .264 with a .343 slugging percentage
That night, he mashed a 422-foot pinch-hit two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning.
That was as many runs as he’d knocked in over the previous 21 games combined, and Butler went five for eight with another home run and two more RBIs the next two days.
Even though he dipped again for a few days, you could make a case that weekend, that pinch hit, was the catalyst for what’s come since. Butler has had a torrid August that included American League player of the week honors.
But he doesn’t think the pinch hit was the key to his turnaround. He loved the moment, sure, and he acknowledges it gave him a boost.
Yet he is certain what really unclogged him was escaping the echo chamber in his head as a designated hitter by getting to play first base in the wake of Hosmer’s injury.
A relatively small but increasingly relevant sample size affirms that, too: Entering the weekend, Butler was hitting .311 with a .504 slugging percentage, five home runs, eight doubles and 19 RBIs in 119 at-bats as a first baseman this season.
In exactly three times as many at-bats (357) as a DH, he was hitting .261 with a .336 slugging percentage, 18 doubles, three homers and 35 RBIs.
The difference sounds simple as Butler explains it.
Since he’d seldom struggled as a professional hitter, he didn’t know “what to fix,” in some ways. This confounding time was compounded by his tendency to stew over each at-bat between plate appearances as a DH.
When he’s going well, of course, he’s more likely to have a healthier mind-set that feeds off itself. If he’s not, then it eats away at him instead. It leaves him wondering what action to take, when sometimes no adjustment at all is the real answer.
Yogi Berra called baseball “90 percent half-mental,” and that was long before the DH was part of the game.
For Butler, being a DH evidently ramps that ratio up after every at-bat since he typically has 30 minutes or more before he resumes play.
He’s been known to wear out hitting coaches by venting or seeking feedback. He will retreat from the dugout and watch “every swing, every time on video, no matter how good or bad.”
He’ll ride a bike or take swings in the batting cage or just fidget to semi-simulate game situations.
“You have to imagine that you’re doing something,” he said. “You have to stay warm and do something to stay in the game.”
Better yet if he actually does stay in the game in a role he played regularly for the Royals in 2009 and 2010.
“It definitely makes it easier for you to not think about what you’re doing wrong at the plate,” he said. “You can let your mind get in the way.”
And that’s the thing here.
Despite the fact you can make the case that this all actually started with an entire night to sit around thinking about hitting before he uncorked that pinch homer, the fact that Butler believes this with such conviction might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That’s part of what the Royals will have to consider as they sort out what to do when Hosmer returns.
First and foremost, they’ve been winning big with this configuration.
And other than a few adventurous pursuits of foul pops, Butler has been no defensive slouch even if he’s not the Gold Glove-caliber of Hosmer.
Now, Butler professes to be a fountain of confidence as a hitter, but in the same breath he suggests a caveat.
When you’re in a slump, he said, “You always feel like you’re one swing away. You almost trick yourself into always believing that.”
So the Royals mess with this at their peril.
But if Hosmer’s healthy, they need him, too.
Like Yost, general manager Dayton Moore speaks only in generalities about the potential dynamics and that he will leave it to his manager and coaching staff to determine.
“Whoever is on the major-league roster, what is required of them is very simple: help us win. Eric Hosmer definitely helps us win,” Moore said. “Billy’s a great team player; Eric Hosmer’s a great team player.”
And, really, how can Moore say more without knowing Hosmer’s timetable, just how healthy he will be and even how Butler will be hitting then?
But there are ample solutions here, including the simplest of all: Even if Hosmer is fully healthy, and that will take some doing, Butler should play first every few days to keep his mind uncluttered.
Broader futures for all can be addressed after the season. But right here, right now, is all anyone should be thinking about.
And while Butler stresses it’s the manager’s job to do that thinking, Butler’s the only one inside his own head.
The Royals don’t have to be hostage to that, but they ought to pay heed.
“I know what my role is on this team, and to do it to the best of my ability I think I need some time in the field,” Butler said. “It doesn’t mean I have to play (in the field) every day.
“I think there’s a happy medium where you can keep ‘Hos’ fresh and you can keep me involved there.
“And I feel like I’ve earned that, and I’ve shown I can play there.”